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Culturing Science

Culturing Science

Biology as relevant to us earthly beings

The Narcissism of De-Extinction

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Winner of Best Biology Blog Post of 2013 from Scienceseeker.org

The TedxDeExtinction conference, discussing how and whether to resurrect extinct species from DNA, took place on the Ides of March 2013 at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. Watch archived versions of the talks.

Passenger pigeon. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

If people had the ability to resurrect extinct species (dubbed “de-extinction”) and reintroduce them to the wild, should we direct our energy and resources towards it?

I will admit my bias straight off: I’m skeptical of the utility of resurrecting extinct species for a multitude of reasons. Many extinct species no longer have the wild habitat to support them, even if a population could be resurrected from DNA, as Brian Switek wrote. Cloning technology is advancing quickly, but not yet ready for large-scale implementation, a topic Ferris Jabr takes on. And, to note the more mundane step between cloning and wild release, we can’t keep most wild animals alive in captivity, which is why you see the same species in zoos around the world. Are we really prepared to keep animals alive if, for example, we don’t even know what environment they prefer or what they eat?

But the main thing that bugs me is the blatant narcissism and anthropocentrism behind it.

Passenger pigeons. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

This morning, speaker Mike Archer argued that resurrecting extinct species is worth doing to "restore the balance of nature that we have upset.” This statement assumes that nature has some pristine state—an Eden containing an ideal balance of organisms. Over the years, ecologists have tried to find this balance and fit organisms and ecosystems into models. But, time and time again, they haven’t been able to fit ecosystems into neat, balanced pockets.

Ecosystems change constantly. Animals migrate. Weather kills off local populations and allows others to thrive. Disease strikes. And, yes, animals go extinct. Most of the time, ecosystems continue on as they were, with organisms making slight changes to their behavior to compensate for the loss. Sometimes the changes are more drastic and the relationships between organisms are reconstructed. It’s a shocking thing to witness—organisms and ecosystems shifting around us—but this isn’t anything new. It’s been happening since the beginning of life.

Passenger pigeon. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

So not only are we trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn’t seem to exist, but we’ve picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: the moment when people first started paying attention. The only species we are capable of resurrecting are those that we know went extinct, those large and common enough to leave fossils, and those that we watched die off. So you see a familiar cadre of de-extinction candidates on the list: mammoths, passenger pigeons, thylacine tigers. These are all big animals that we are sure used to be around because they are large enough to leave an impact on human culture—or, as speaker Stanley Temple put it later in the afternoon, “species that I lamented as a boy.”

This suddenly is less about the species themselves and more about us.

But why shouldn’t it be, if we’re the ones causing so much damage? Sure, people have caused many recent extinctions, as our species spreads and displaces others. And because we are aware of our actions, we have a moral obligation to try to not drive species to extinction. But to say that our extinctions are worse than any other extinctions is a display of narcissism. Extinction is part of life.

What makes our extinctions different, however, is that we can learn from them. We can avoid having to lament species by learning how to take better care of habitats and ecosystems, how to use technology and back-crossing to induce greater genetic variation in small, endangered populations to give them a better chance of survival, and how to properly raise animals in captivity and then release them into the wild.

It’s to the future we must look, not the past. Cut your extinction losses, people: we have to focus our energy on the extinctions that haven’t happened yet.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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